Here’s my secret strategy
It always works, because
The world doesn’t end
It just feels like it does
First off, let’s all take a moment of solemn remembrance for what it must be like to Be The Oilers© this season.
Okay, that’s long enough. All sympathy for Edmonton may now be expunged. This team has doubled down on its approach so many times over the years that I half expect Craig MacTavish to take a shift without a helmet in game 82 this year, just for old times’ sake.
Still, the Oilers are talented. They have multiple 40-goal scorers, which is something the Stars can’t really relate to. However, they also will miss the playoffs despite hiring Ken Hitchcock to fix their defensive issues while one player has a career year, which the Stars most definitely can relate to. I guess what I’m saying is, those playoff battles from a couple decades ago have inextricably linked these franchises. Also Ales Hemsky. And Andrew Cogliano. And Kris Russell.
(Mostly Ales Hemsky.)
I get the feeling that lots of disgruntled Oilers fans will probably look at this game and say that the Stars, for all their flaws, might just be a more complete (read: more, not absolutely) team than the Oilers, which is really sobering when you consider that the Oilers have the best player in the world over there, doing his thing. Or maybe you just say “goaltending,” and that’s it. Mikko Koskinen is not particularly good from what we’ve seen of him in the NHL so far, a certain shutout against Dallas notwithstanding. Maybe about average, all told, or maybe slightly worse. Either way, the important thing is to remember how dearly the Oilers have paid (and will pay) for anything that looks remotely like a average-ish instrument of goal-prevention. Just as drafting for need can burn you down the road, so too can rushing to lock up (or trade for) players that will fix a perceived embarrassing weakness. Trust the process, or find a new one. Impatience will just whack-a-mole you into fixing a new issue tomorrow.
The Stars showed a lot of patience in this one in terms of scoring, as they have done pretty much all year. Dallas didn’t really didn’t generate much in the first part of this game, unless you count a lot of saves generated by the awesomeness that is Anton Khudobin, in which case they generated a whole buncha stuffs. Seriously, how good was it to see Khudobin not-lose a game in which he held the other team to two goals?
Khudobin looked like he was really enjoying the challenge of playing against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and the Stars did him the kindness of allowing him to face them far more often than he could have hoped, or perhaps even wanted. Still, the two goals he surrendered were a no-look cross from McDavid to Draisaitl just after a penalty expired that he had no chance on, and a McDavid goal that you’ll be seeing for a long time to come. Khudobin also had a couple pucks trickle just wide of the net, but he really was feeling cocksure in this one, as he even made a couple stand-up saves.
I won’t bother GIFing it since it’s ten seconds into that video, but look at Draisaitl burn Hintz to draw that penalty (which would end up being the Oiler’s only power play, somehow). That’s not a great job by Hintz, who stops skating for just long enough to lose a step on his man, and that is a good example of why (among other reasons) Draisaitl was a top pick. Roope Hintz has become the Stars’ de facto second-line center (and he even played more than Faksa last night), but he’s also still a rookie.
Rookies get exposed by elite players at times, as even Miro Heiskanen reminded us when McDavid blew by him wide, only to have Khudobin sabotage #97 with an astute poke check. Of course, Heiskanen also scored a beautiful goal to tie the game, so it’s not like he was a liability out there by a long stretch. Sometimes you pick up your goalie, and other times your goalie is out for blood and you enjoy the spoils. In this case, “blood” meant “a win against a bad team.” We’ll take it.
Edmonton looked, overall, like a sloppy team wielding dangerous weaponry. Maybe that’s been Edmonton as an organization, come to think of it. As much as we bemoan aspects of the team closest to our hearts, it’s pretty mind-boggling that Edmonton will make anyone grateful for their own team. (Almost anyone, at least.)
If Hitch still has the itch to coach, will the Oilers bring him back? I guess it depends on the new GM, but Bob Nicholson certainly doesn’t strike me as someone disenchanted with a disciplinarian behind the bench. But make no mistake: Connor McDavid’s scoring peak is not going to last many more years, even if his elite status will.
Jamie Benn can attest to that, absolutely, although his even-strength performance really hasn’t been that bad this year at all—he’s at 1.0 goals/60 while Seguin is at 1.04. Hardly garbage, then.
It’s the power play is where Benn’s production has really changed, but we’ll get to that. Since Christmas (our arbitrary endpoint for the day), the Stars’ power play as a whole has been better than you might think: Dallas ranks 9th in GF/60 while up a man, and one would expect Mats Zuccarello to help that even more. More surprisingly, it’s not been from the same source as it was early in the year. Since December 25th, Roope Hintz has three power play goals, and Jamie Benn has just two. Benn is still tied for the team lead in power play goals (eight, with Seguin) so that should remind us just how much the captain was carrying the power play for the first two months of the season, right up until being told off by the Stars’ CEO. Pretty cool. Anyway, despite leading the team in goals/60 on the power play, Benn is still having his worst season in terms of point production on the job since his rookie year. Why is that? Because his assist rates (both primary and secondary) are both sitting at half of his former career worsts.
This is a bit of digression here, but I took a look at Benn’s short charts from the last six seasons or so, and they aren’t that radically different from this year. He has more or less been a net-front guy since Lindy Ruff’s first season. This year, he is perhaps slightly moreso there as a screen/rebound guy, but I suspect his assists are down primarily because of other factors.
I dove into this (which is partly why this went up so late today) thank to the great tools available for subscribers at HockeyViz.com (seriously, you should subscribe and give Micah like five bucks a month) and came up with a couple of conclusions.
Here’s this year:
Compare this with last year, and you don’t notice a huge difference in Benn’s location:
And once more, from 2016-17, when Benn had the highest power play assist rates of his career. You’ll notice Benn in a similar spot:
There’s lots here (and lots not here), but the biggest difference I notice is how imbalanced this year’s power play is. This year sees a preponderance of the shots from the left side of the ice, with Radulov and Benn in a very similar spot in the low slot. Again, we must emphasize that the Stars’ power play has actually been fine this year, but as far as explaining Benn’s point production issues, I think it has to do with puck movement. Dallas is trying to set up very specific plays: the Seguin one-timer, the Klingberg point shot with traffic/deflections, and the doorstep dunk to Radulov. Benn is there for rebounds or breakdowns where he can stuff the puck home, should the defenders leave him uncovered for an easy play. He is not used much as a hinge for setups, except to reset the power play and collect loose pucks.
Benn isn’t a critical passer on the power play this year, and that’s largely been okay, for Dallas. (Of course, they also seem fine not playing Jason Spezza, who has been a critical passer for their power play over the last two years, so we’ll see if this power play production can stay hot in April.)
As for the John Klingberg embellishment penalty, I’m a little torn. There was all sorts of hooking going on from both Oilers players here (not tripping, as was called), and Klingberg got slowed as a result, lost the puck, and ended up diving to poke the puck away. The official called it embellishment, but honestly, given how this game was called, I think that was just coming from a general reticence to award power plays. Look at it yourself:
Kassian for tripping.— Dylan Nadwodny (@dnadders) March 29, 2019
Klingberg for embellishment. pic.twitter.com/Teo4Co5QgY
Of course, we say “referee” because Chris Lee left the game after an awkward collision early on. Ian Walsh also got hit a couple of times after that, but he managed to tough it out. Perhaps his arm was hurting and he didn’t want to raise it too much, but there were certainly a lot of uncalled infractions, which made the Klingberg embellishment call that much more of an odd one.
Finally, let’s rapid-fire the rest of this one away:
- Radulov’s power play goal came after a giant breakdown by the two forwards on the Oilers’ penalty kill to open the royal road for that pass. It was a beauty of an assist, so maybe that’s your answer to how the Stars’ power play is going to re-shape itself with Montgomery’s eschewing of Spezza.
- Andrew Cogliano hit the post right after that, which is either a really great shot or a really bad bit of goaltending. You decide. Personally, I’d be miffed if my goalie lets that one it.
- Hitch rolled out the McDavid line practically every other shift in the 3rd. My only question is why you would ever take him off the ice.
- Dickinson had the great delay in the corner after entering the zone, and he ended up finding Miro Heiskanen, who had an even better delay to produce the Stars’ second goal. Heiskanen’s shot was aided by the helpless flailings of Josh Currie.
- Hintz had the game in hand after a nice chip by, again, Dickinson to find Hintz alone in front of Koskinen, but the rookie couldn’t get the puck past Koskinen’s glove. Honestly, how cool is it to have hope for Dickinson, Hintz and Heiskanen playing major roles in the playoffs? We’ll see what happens, but those guys all look like Players right now, and that’s something Dallas has needed for far too long.
- If Dickinson can play in the top six, and if Pitlick and Zuccarello both return healthy, then the Stars can roll their checking line of Faksa, Comeau and Janmark with some mix of Cogliano, Pitlick, and Dowling/Spezza/Nichushkin/Ritchie. That’s how I’m reading it, at least. Lots to ponder in these final four games. It’s fun pondering playoff rosters.
- Dallas got one more shot to end things in regulation when Benn shot a puck off the rush (from a fabulous lead pass from Klingberg) that trickled through Koskinen’s arm, but just wide. Benn has a great snap shot, you may recall. That would come up again.
- Klingberg’s passing in this one was outstanding. Can we get him some sort of hand-model hyperbaric chamber once the Stars clinch their playoff berth, please?
- Khudobin was fabulous in overtime, stopping McDavid and Klefbom in tight, then money again in the shootout, stopping four of five. What else can you say about him?
- Overtime started with Hintz and Heiskanen on the ice against the Oilers’ deadly duo. Pretty crazy to have a pair of rookies out there against Draisaitl and McDavid, and it almost burned the Stars after a puck squirted loose from the boards to an open guy at the blue line. Thankfully, that guy was the least dangerous of the three players by a wide margin, and Khudobin took care of things.
- Janmark had his own great chances in this one, first on a cross that he couldn’t get a handle on, then on a rush from the right side in alone that Koskinen saved. He can skate, though.
- The shootout was a lot of fun once Seguin scored to knot things. It was cool to see Khudobin’s confidence even after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hit his spot perfectly. Khudobin has rarely been put on tilt this whole season, really. That sort of resilience is what you need out of a goaltender, particularly one backing up Ben Bishop. His stop on Shootout Savant Sam Gagner was particularly impressive. Connor McDavid’s chance, less so, but I guess the only person who can stop Connor McDavid these days might be Connor McDavid, so there you go.
- Alex Chiasson’s chance was particularly amusing, as he ended up shooting the puck like Tyler Seguin at an empty net, which is to say into the netting (the wrong one).
- I liked Montgomery’s choices of shooters, even with his (and all NHL coaches, for that matter) adherence to the hot-hand fallacy always lurking in the background. I’ll admit, though, that part of me wanted him to put Nichushkin out there third. It’s not like the Stars’ playoff hopes are really in jeopardy at this point. Admittedly, that would have been a very bad decision, but I am here to be entertained. Don’t ever put me in charge.
- The best thing about the Stars’ shootout attempts? All of them were on net. Radulov’s backhand was murphed away by Koskinen (barely), Heiskanen couldn’t find the five-hole on a sub-par chance (after some bonkers stick language), and even Klingberg caught Koskinen’s glove.
- It was the five-hole, though. Seguin hit his spot above the blade like he was aiming at a shooter tutor, and Benn finally, finally went to the forehand on a shootout/breakaway and used his shot to hit his spot. May we never see that backhand nonsense again.
Four games to go.